Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Polynesia Art at Auction – Hei Tiki - Maori, New Zealand

Polynesian Resource Center

>With a sale price of 372,750 euros (Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium) against an estimate of 100,000 — 150,000 euros, this hei tiki must rate as one of the highest priced hei tiki sold at auction. I will not quote the catalogue blurb in full because it is mainly puff relating to a who's who of former owners including Countess Martine de Béhague (1869 – 1939) and the collector, archaeologist, and historian Bernard Bottet. Its real interest is its size which is 17.5 cm x 11 cm or 7 x 4 and 1/3 inches. There are in the world only a few pre-contact hei tiki of this size as most of the large ones where made after the introduction of steel made large pounamu adzes obsolete and these were converted to hei tiki. This conversion however started with a long narrow artefact which meant later ones have a squashed appearance.

Interesting points about this hei tiki are the finely engraved eyes with radiating motifs which enhance the irridescense of the paua shell inlays. Two other examples in the Auckland Museum which were both collected in 1795 and date to post archaic 1500AD to 1800AD. One is a South Island piece the other attributed to the Lower North Island. Nephrite (pounamu) of course comes from the West Coast of the South Island and was traded across all over New Zealand or more accurately exchanged via the Polynesian concept of mutual gift giving. To say it was prized is an understatement and following the introduction of European firearms which allowed some tribes a technological advantage in warfare this resulted in the invasion of the upper South Island to gain access to the largest deposits of the stone.

The carving on this hei tiki is more detailed than on most, but the larger size allows this as most early hei tiki would be half this size or less. I have written elsewhere that having seen hundreds of these pendants and despite the great value placed on them by Maori and by collectors aesthetically they leave me a bit cold. In the flesh a really good one is impressive, but these were produced in vast quantities post the introduction of steel, as they were small and portable and a ready market existed for them in Europe. There is evidence to suggest that post 1800 Europeans contracted Kati Mamo in the South to manufacture large numbers probably in exchange for steel in various forms, blankets and for firearms. It would be fair to say that they have been produced for trade ever since, through the 19th century, 20th and into the 21st mainly of poor quality including in the 60's of plastic or later still of Chinese nephrite.

This makes an interesting comparison to Austral Island paddles which many collectors look down there noses at, which we almost all made between 1820 to 1840 for after that date infectious diseases had wiped out the carvers. These paddles are almost all good quality baring a few really rough and later examples, yet most pre late 19th century pounamu hei tiki find a willing buyer prepared to pay in the thousands. However, New Zealand now seems to be finally producing stone carvers of quality; I was in Te Papa recently and checked out their shop and was surprised to see several stone pendants of real quality. Not I note of the Classic form of the hei tiki above, but in forms based on old mainly rare patterns and on new interpretations of Maori Art. This I believe is legitimate and is were stone carvers need to concentrate their energies, learning first classic patterns and then exploring other forms hiding away in museums, then having mastered Maori and Polynesian Aesthetics creating new and interesting forms. However, potential buyers of modern Maori Art should be warned that in Te Papa's shop was one of the usual Fantasy Comic Book influenced examples which spoil modern Maori art and signify an uneducated artist.

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